NFL Draft 2011: Ranking the Top 10 Big Ten Defensive Hopefuls

Phil Harrison@@PhilHarrisonCFNCorrespondent IApril 14, 2011

NFL Draft 2011: Ranking the Top 10 Big Ten Defensive Hopefuls

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    Last time we took a look at the top 10 Big Ten offensive hopefuls in this year's NFL draft, where it is evident that the Big Ten is having a down year.

    Now it is time to take a look at the defensive side of the ball, where the Big Ten is primed to have a much stronger showing on draft day. The countdown starts at 10 as we work our way to No. 1 with a strong defensive line flavor.

    Disclaimer: Like the offensive countdown, Nebraska is not included since it was busy terrorizing the Big 12 last year.

10. LB Ross Homan, Ohio State

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    Though Penn State is known as Linebacker U, Ohio State is second to no one in churning out top linebackers to the NFL. Ross Homan, though not as electric as some of the others in recent years, will follow those Buckeye greats before him.

    Strengths: Homan is a student of the game and has about as solid a fundamental base as any linebacker out there. He has shown that he knows to take care of assignments and will be a great addition to any NFL locker room with his demeanor and leadership qualities.

    The Knock: Many scouts believe that there is not much upside to Homan's game. His burst and quickness is decent but not great on the NFL level, and his size could be an issue from a physical standpoint.

    Best Guess: Fourth round or later

9. SS Tyler Sash, Iowa

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    The Iowa Hawkeyes had a great defense last year much in part to the efforts of strong safety Tyler Sash. His swashbuckling style will be coming to a stadium near you next year.

    Strengths: Tyler Sash has a nose for the ball and displayed it by always being in the right place at the right time. He has great anticipation and is very good at keying on what offenses are trying to do. He is an explosive tackler and can bring the wood.

    The Knock: Sash does not possess great foot speed to close on more accurate NFL passers. Though it sounds like nitpicking, he also has very short arms compared with other safeties coming out in the draft that could have downstream impacts in regards to shedding blocks and getting pas breakups.

    Best Guess: Third round 

8. LB Greg Jones, Michigan State

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    This is stating the obvious, but Greg Jones was a beast in college. He has set the bar high for future linebackers that might prowl the field in East Lansing.

    Strengths: Simply put, Jones has an innate ability to find the ball carrier, wrap him up and bring him down. He has great vision and is an extraordinary pass rusher. As his many accolades point to, he may have the most talent of any linebacker coming out this year. Big for NFL scouts is that he has excelled at both the outside and inside positions.

    The Knock: You would expect Jones to rank higher on draft boards, but the reality is that he had a tendency to disappear against elite competition, leaving many scouts to wonder if he is just a great athlete that gets lost on the field when he plays against equal or better competition. That is a bit of a concern when you are playing against the caliber of athlete that will strap 'em on every week in the NFL. It also did not help matters that he did not grade out well on all of the athletic tests.

    Best Guess: Third round or earlier 

7. CB Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State

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    Ohio State has sent a lot of defensive backs to the NFL over the past few years, many of them first-rounders. Though Chekwa may not be expected to go that high, he is ready to make a splash for the Buckeyes again this year.

    Strengths: Chekwa is one of the fastest players in this year's draft. His combination of speed and anticipation was on display in Columbus and should translate to the NFL to force turnovers and pass breakups. 

    The Knock: The same aggression and anticipation that Chekwa displays could also lead to allowing big plays and not being sound when needed. Chekwa does not have the best set of hands and is prone to dropping interceptions that could turn the tide in a game.

    Best Guess: Third round

6. LB Martez Wilson, Illinois

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    Martez Wilson is next in a long line of very good linebackers at Illinois. He will undoubtedly make the Fighting Illini proud in this year's NFL draft and add his name to this pedigree.

    Strengths: Wilson may have more speed and athleticism than any other linebacker in this year's draft, and many scouts believe that he has barely tapped the potential of the player that he can become. Because of his length and speed, Wilson is able to drop deep in coverage and take great pursuit angles to bring down even the fleetest of ball carriers.

    The Knock: He does have a history of injuries and lack of flexibility, which calls into question his work ethic. Wilson's instincts are not as strong as others in his class, and he looks a little out of place when trying to cover the flat.

    Best Guess: Early third round

5. DE Cameron Heyward, Ohio State

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    Now we start to get into the bread and butter of this year's Big Ten NFL draft hopefuls. Cameron Heyward probably would have gone higher if this were last year, but a perceived underachieving year has resulted in a decline in his stock.

    Strengths: Cameron Heyward has a lot of strength to bull-rush almost any offensive lineman. He has a great pedigree and very strong work ethic to go along with being a great teammate and leader on and off the field. Heyward has the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage when totally tuned in.

    The Knock: Heyward can disappear when faced with a double-team. This year, with the majority of teams keying on him, his stats plummeted significantly. Heyward is a thick body and lacks the speed and agility that could be a plus coming off the edge in the NFL.

    Best Guess: Second round

4. DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa

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    Adrian Clayborn burst onto the scene in 2009 and surprised many by coming back for his senior season in 2010. Like Heyward, the numbers were not as good in his last tour of duty, but he still has the ability to be a great pick for any team in need of a defensive end this year.

    Strengths: Like Heyward, Clayborn is a very stout and powerful defensive end. He is very explosive when shedding tacklers and exploding to the ball carrier. He uses his leverage well to get under the pad level of offensive linemen and change the line of scrimmage. Clayborn has an unbelievable motor and desire that could eventually take him to a Pro Bowl.

    The Knock: Clayborn is not very quick because of his thick lower body and cannot pursue as well as other rush ends. He has a penchant to rely on his explosion with a big hit to bring down a ball carrier rather than using good technique to wrap up and tackle. Lastly, Clayborn has had some off-the-field issues, which always give NFL teams pause for concern.

    Best Guess: Early second with a possibility for late first round

3. DT Corey Liuget, Illinois

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    The only defensive tackle hopeful for the Big Ten in the list is Corey Liuget out of the University of Illinois. Though many may not know too much about him, he has the potential to be a star on the NFL level.

    Strengths: Liuget's most admired strength from the NFL types is his versatility to play the nose position or interior line. He has the strength and power to swipe aside almost any attacker and is a great tackler because of his leverage and technique. His college coaches have praised his leadership qualities as well.

    The Knock: Liuget lacks the closing speed to keep contain or track down a ball carrier once beaten. His off-the-snap burst is also slow compared to other interior linemen available in the draft. There is a concern among some that Liuget cannot handle a heavy workload and gets winded more easily than others.

    Best Guess: Late first or early second round

2. DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue

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    Now we are getting into the elite of the elite on the defensive side of the Big Ten. Ryan Kerrigan is a consensus All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year that will undoubtedly go very high in this year's draft.

    Strengths: The most defining attribute of Ryan Kerrigan is his unquestioned effort and work ethic. He never gives up on a play and will outwork his opponent on every down. Add the fact that he turned in the second-best 40 time at the NFL combine for a defensive lineman, and the NFL team that selects Kerrigan may have the makings of something very special. Not to be missed are Kerrigan's smarts to pick up any scheme.

    The Knock: It is hard to knock much here, but Kerrigan does display an issue disengaging from blockers on occasion. His ability to use his hands more to shed these blocks would get him even more tackles. Though his top-end speed is there, Kerrigan doesn't have the best first-step burst and quickness.

    Best Guess: First round

1. DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin

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    And the No. 1 Big Ten defensive hopeful in the 2011 NFL draft: J.J. Watt from Wisconsin. Watt had an impressive year ransacking opposing backfields this year, but his stock has continued to climb as he has gone through his workouts in front of NFL scouts.

    Strengths: Watt has great hands and technique to shed the initial contact of any offensive lineman. He rarely gives up on a play and has the quickness and aggressiveness to track down the ball carrier. Watt displays a lot of integrity and character both on and off the field and takes nothing for granted. He has an NFL frame that has the potential to get even bigger (in a good sense). Watt may be the class of all defensive linemen in the draft.

    The Knock: Not much. When in pursuit Watt can have a tendency to overrun plays because of his hustle and aggressiveness, and he may want to learn to play more controlled in certain situations. He could also work some on the finer points of disengaging blocks once he is past the initial contact of the man in front of him at the snap.

    Best Guess: First round, and maybe early.